China to get tough in talks with Putrajaya?

Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad during his recent trip to China. (Bernama pic)

PETALING JAYA: A former diplomat has warned of the likelihood of Beijing toughening its position in negotiations with Putrajaya over Chinese-led projects in Malaysia.

Dennis Ignatius.

Dennis Ignatius, who once served in China, said Putrajaya might want to appoint a Cabinet member to take charge of negotiations with Beijing.

Speaking to FMT, the former high commissioner to Canada noted that recent articles appearing in the Chinese media indicated that Beijing was sending signals that it would back Chinese companies seeking to protect their interests.

Among the latest of these signals was yesterday’s editorial in Global Times, long seen as a paper that reflects Beijing’s views.

The editorial came in the wake of Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s trip to China, where he announced the postponement of Chinese-backed mega-projects such as the East Coast Rail Link and the Trans-Sabah Gas Pipeline.

According to Ignatius, the editorial is Beijing’s way of telling Putrajaya to raise its concerns through diplomatic channels instead of making public statements. “They have made this point before,” he added.

Ngeow Chow Bing.

He also said China had been indicating concern over media reports suggesting that Malaysia’s cancellation of projects under the One Belt One Road (Obor) scheme represents the beginning of a wider pushback against Beijing’s plans in the region.

“In fact,” he added, “China’s state media have launched a media offensive to play up the success of Obor and the positive impact it has had in many developing countries. Leaders of Obor countries are being trotted out to sing its praises.”

He added that China appeared to be saying it understood Malaysia’s difficulties but that Putrajaya must understand that its actions, if not handled properly, could have wider ramifications.

Yeah Kim Leng.

Ngeow Chow Bing of the Institute of China Studies at Universiti Malaya agreed that Global Times appeared to be sending a message to Putrajaya that it should raise its concerns through diplomatic channels.

He said the editorial was “reasonable and fair” and came across as calling for self-reflection on the part of Beijing.

However, Yeah Kim Leng of Sunway University Business School said the editorial seemed to be telling Beijing to “accept and appreciate” Putrajaya’s intention to correct the excesses of the previous administration.

But he also observed that Global Times was warning of adverse reactions from the Chinese public if the interests of Chinese firms were not properly handled.

“Given the strong market power wielded by Chinese consumers, any build-up of negative sentiments or resentment could ultimately affect bilateral trade, investment and tourism activities, even when government-to-government relations remain intact,” he said.